Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Tibetan Monastic Education
by Georges Dreyfus
January 1, 2001
Section 4 of 7

Examinations and the Organization of Debate

The practical organization of debate in exile has undergone changes, though its overall structure has remained the same. Debate is still carried on in the courtyard, where monks confront each other in two ways:

In the individual debate (tsödartsod zla; lit., “debate with a partner”), monks pair with each other, one standing and playing the role of the questioner, and the other sitting down and playing the role of the defender. Before ending the encounter, they may switch roles. If the debate goes well, it can last for a while and attract other monks who have finished their individual debates. As the debate continues (sometimes for hours), the surrounding circle grows. Some observers may jump in on one side or the other. This is a time of high excitement for the debating pair who find themselves enveloped by tens and sometimes hundreds of monks listening attentively.

In the formal debate (damchadam bca’; lit., “defense”), the entire group focuses on a single debate. One or two students sit as defenders while the others sit in rows facing the empty space in front of the answerer(s). A student stands, moves into this empty space, and starts the debate, knowing that the whole group will support him. If he gets stuck, those in the audience can jump in and help him. Thus, in a formal debate, all who are present can question one or two defenders, who must stand alone. As we will see, this exercise is quite difficult when a large crowd is involved, as during the geshédge bshes exam. On such occasions, the candidate’s ability as a defender is tested to its limit.

Monks move through such practices in an organized and systematic fashion. They follow a prescribed curriculum in a set order, the studies being organized by classes, or cohorts. When a student starts his studies, he enters into a class of students, who study a set number of topics per year. They start together with the Collected Topics and move on to the study of the five texts, each topic being studied at the prescribed time by all the members of the class. Each year, the class moves ahead with all of its members. In Sera JéSe ra byes, there are fifteen classes:

Classes 1-3 Collected Topics (beginning, intermediate, and advanced; i.e., düchungbsdus chung, düdringbsdus ’bring, and düchenbsdus chen)
Classes 4-8 The Ornament61
Classes 9-10 Madhyamaka (beginning and advanced)
Classes 11-12 Vinaya (beginning and advanced)
Class 13 Abhidharma
Class 14 Karambka’ rams (review of both Vinaya and Abhidharma)
Class 15 Lharamlha rams (review of the whole curriculum in preparation for the geshédge bshes exam)

Each class chooses a reciting leader (kyorpönskyor dpon), who is responsible for organizing collective debates and memorizing the prescribed texts at ritual occasions.62 This reciting leader also ensures that students debate the designated subject at the proper time. Because students of the same class debate with each other every day, they spend a great deal of time with members of their cohort. For example, every day of the debate session (discussed above), monks debate collectively with their classmates, as each class engages in one formal debate. Larger collective debates involving the whole monastery or even the whole seat are done only on formal occasions, usually at examination time. When students debate individually, often young monks will seek older students to test their skills. It is considered poor form for a senior to refuse to answer a younger monk.

A given class does not share the same teacher, for each student may choose his own. This diversity is a good thing for the class, as different teachers express conflicting views, which give rise to further debate. It also drives home the point that the teachers’ opinions cannot be taken as authoritative. In a debate, saying “This is so because my teacher said so” is considered tantamount to admitting that one lacks any ability to think for oneself. Reasonings or texts, not people, are held to be definitive.

Tibetan scholars permit the quotation of texts in debate, if a questioner is unable to make his point purely on the strength of his arguments. He may say, for instance, that compassion is the loving attitude that wishes sentient beings to be free from suffering because this is stated by such-and-such an authoritative thinker (usually the author of the manual of the monastery, or TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and his disciples). Such an argument is allowed and used quite frequently in debates, even though it blatantly violates a basic rule of Buddhist logic: a citation cannot be used to prove a fact that can be established otherwise…

Although Tibetan scholars accept the use of quotes in debate on all topics, they disagree on the value of such a move. This disagreement parallels their different understandings of the role of debate. Some scholars see debate mostly as a pedagogical tool useful for internalizing the content of the great texts. For them, the use of a quote is perfectly legitimate in that it helps students commit the tradition to memory. Others see debate as a means of intellectual inquiry in its own right. Hence, they prefer an argument to a quote, as the use of the quote reveals the weakness of the debater’s position. Moreover, using a quote in a debate is not as strong a move as one may think, for it is often possible for the defender to interpret away the quote by providing a convenient gloss.

In pre-1959 Tibet, scholastic studies were optional and reserved for those who were really committed.63 Beginners could expect to start with several hundred students in their cohort. By the end, ten or fifteen would be left. Every year, many students would leave, either going back to their native province or settling for the more leisurely life of a nonscholar monk. On the other hand, monks who were interested in studying could expect to be able to continue if they were reasonably diligent—particularly since most examinations precluded the possibility of failure. A student might never reach a given examination, but once he did he was assured of a positive outcome, regardless of his performance.

There was no system of yearly examinations and the assessment of knowledge was not very effective. Students would be promoted regardless of their scholarly progress. Only at certain crucial junctures would they be examined. These examinations differed among the monasteries, according to the customs of each institution. The student’s first examination demonstrated that his memorization of his monastery’s prescribed ritual texts had qualified him to start his scholastic study. The next trial came several years later, at the end of the studies of the Collected Topics, when he would sit in a formal debate in front of his regional house. But as was often the case in examinations, there was no question of failing. Not every student would be examined; and when a candidate did poorly, more seasoned scholars would answer for him, suggesting that the main point was not to demonstrate possession of knowledge but to signify a ritual passage from one stage of study to the next.

When the student was well into the study of the Ornament, he would again be examined in ways that varied among different monasteries. At Sera JéSe ra byes, for instance, students were tested on their memorization and examined through debates while studying the Ornament in the second class devoted to this text.64 The better students would then be given the opportunity to take part in a special ceremonial debate in front of the whole monastery called the small reasoning (rikchungrigs chung). During this debate, for which they prepared with great care, students would be paired, one debating and the other answering. The debate was preceded by preliminary examinations in the form of formal debates in the different regional houses. Other monasteries, including GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling, emphasized the Small Reasoning less and debate between classes more. The main exam concerning the Ornament would consist of debates between the classes studying this text. On this formal occasion, the debate would be started by the recitation leader, who oversaw the whole procedure. But here again, not every student was examined. Many would sit through these proceedings without saying very much, leaving the task of dealing with the other class to their more active colleagues.65

In exile, the trend has been toward a more rationalized system in which the progress of individuals can be more tightly monitored. Unlike in premodern Tibet, where even in the great monastic seats only a minority of monks would study, in exile most now study. Accordingly, students are tested yearly on their memorization and their debates. A written examination, which is taking on increasing importance, has also been instituted. Students can be and are failed, although that outcome is still relatively rare. A similar system also exists at the Buddhist School of Dialectics and other smaller institutions, where students are examined on a regular basis. Even Tibetan monks find it difficult to escape the iron cage of modernity!

[61] The four classes on the Ornament are beginning and advanced treatises (zhung sarnyinggzhung gsar rnying), and beginning and advanced separate topics (zurkö sarnyingzur bkod gsar rnying). See Rabten, The Life and Teaching, 38, and Chatrim ChenmoBca’ khrims chen mo, 83-84.
[62] The name “reciting leader” comes from the function of this class leader during the recitations (tsipzhakrtsib bzhag): the abbot recites by heart the appropriate passages from the monastery’s manuals, and the reciting leader must then repeat each passage. This recitation is nowadays purely ceremonial, a reminder of the times when the manuals were not codified and the abbot would give his own commentary. Then, the reciting leader would have received this teaching and shared it with his classmates.
[63] Gyatso, Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, 88.
[64] The second class devoted to the Ornament is called zhungnyinggzhung rnying (lit., “Old Treatise”).
[65] Blo gros, ’Bras spungs chos ’byung, 245.
Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus